Black Women: The Unfinished Agenda: African American Women Made Great Progress in Education and Entering into Previously Forbidden Occupations-But Their Gains in Earnings Mysteriously Stopped

By Conrad, Cecilia A. | The American Prospect, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Black Women: The Unfinished Agenda: African American Women Made Great Progress in Education and Entering into Previously Forbidden Occupations-But Their Gains in Earnings Mysteriously Stopped


Conrad, Cecilia A., The American Prospect


We occupy many of the seats on the 5:30 P.M. Metrolink train from downtown Los Angeles to San Bernardino. We are behind the counters at the Department of Motor Vehicles and on both sides of the desks at the Department of Social Services. We push wheelchairs in parks and hospitals and hug children at day-care centers. Black women, who in 2006 constituted 7 percent of the working-age population, represented 14 percent of women workers and 53 percent of black workers, yet we are largely invisible in the policy discourse about both race and gender.

Like black men, black women live in neighborhoods far from employment opportunities and with low-performing schools. Like white women, black women experience occupational segregation, a gender wage gap and the challenge of balancing family and work. We are discriminated against because we are black. We are discriminated against because we are women. We are discriminated against because we are both.

This twin set of vulnerabilities has a big impact on black families and the black community at large because the wages of black women constitute a major component of black family income. Because of the limited economic prospects for black men, black women are likely to be both primary caregivers and primary breadwinners in our families. In nearly 44 percent of black families with children, a woman is the primary breadwinner. This includes both families headed by working single mothers and married-couple families in which the wife works and the husband does not. These female breadwinner families account for over 32 percent of aggregate black family income. In contrast, across all racial and ethnic groups, female breadwinner families represent only 24 percent of all families with children and account for 14 percent of aggregate family income. Hence, the gender wage gap and the lack of labor-market opportunities has a bigger impact on the economic well-being of black families than it does for other groups.

Despite a history of strong labor-force attachment and despite gains in educational attainment and occupational status, black women earn less than black men, white women, and white men. In 2005, for the same hours worked, we earned 85 cents for every dollar earned by a white woman, 87 cents for every dollar earned by a black man, and 63 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. In 2006, over 13 percent of black women workers were poor, compared with 5 percent of white women, 7.7 percent of black men, and 4.4 percent of white men. Our unemployment rate is nearly double that of white women and white men.

These statistics are especially depressing because slightly more than three decades ago, black women earned 96 cents for every dollar earned by a white woman. Between 1975 and 2000, the median earnings of white women grew by 32 percent while the median earnings of black women grew by only 22 percent. This recent experience contrasts sharply with the gains realized in the 1960s and 1970s when the income growth among black women outpaced that of other groups thanks to the improvements in black women's educational attainment and the elimination of the most blatant discriminatory barriers to employment and occupational mobility.

WHAT INTERRUPTED this upward trajectory? Technological change and global competition increased the premium paid for skilled workers in the United States over the 1980s and 1990s and, although the proportion of black women with college degrees increased, a racial gap in educational attainment persists. In 2007, 19 percent of black women 25 and older had college diplomas compared with over 30 percent of white, non-Hispanic women.

Another factor contributing to a decrease in the black-white earnings ratio for women was the growth in labor-force participation of white women. This growth in white women's labor-force participation coupled with a weakening labor-force attachment of young black women and black single mothers eroded black women's work experience advantage. …

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